Cybersecurity's Role in Combating Midterm Election Disinformation
The mention of “election security” among cybersecurity practitioners typically conjures up concerns about voting machine tampering, vulnerabilities, and the possibility of data breaches. But there’s more to it than hardware, software, and process. Misinformation and disinformation are extremely pressing problems that are commingled with traditional cybersecurity — a multilayered attack technique that took center stage in 2020 and has only grown more endemic since.
Time may be running out as the midterms approach, but security teams on the front lines — those that work with voting equipment manufacturers, businesses that supply component parts, and those within government agencies responsible for ensuring the integrity of election equipment — can still take integral steps to combat this very dangerous threat.
As far as misinformation and disinformation are concerned, neither is a new concept. The practice of spreading mis- and disinformation (aka “fake news”) can be traced back as far as circa 27 BC, when then Roman emperor Caesar Augustus spread lies about his nemesis, Mark Antony, to gain public favor.
“Misinformation” is the unintentional spread of disinformation. “Disinformation” is the intentional spread of false information that is purposely meant to mislead and influence public opinion. This may contain tiny snippets of factual information that have been highly manipulated, helping to create confusion and casting doubt on what’s fact and what’s not.
In just the past few weeks, a clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, entered a not guilty plea for charges relating to her alleged involvement with election equipment tampering. She, alongside a colleague, are being held accountable for providing access to an unauthorized individual who copied hard drives and accessed passwords for a software security update (the passwords were later distributed online). The accused clerks publicly spread disinformation about election security prior to the incident.
In Georgia, election officials recently decided to replace voting equipment after forensic experts hired by a pro-Trump group were caught copying numerous components of the equipment, including software and data. It has not been found that the outcome of the election was impacted, but the fact of compromise sows the seeds of doubt and begs the question: How and where could the stolen data be used again to influence elections?
And back in February 2022, election officials in Washington state decided to remove intrusion detection software from voting machines, claiming that the devices were part of a left-wing conspiracy theory to spy on voters.
And unfortunately, the preponderance of public platforms on which anyone can voice an opinion on a topic — even if it’s without a shred of factual information — makes it simple for that voice to be heard. The result is constant public questioning about the veracity of any information and data.
The amount of dis- and misinformation that can be spread grows proportionally alongside the cyberattack surface. Reasonably, the more places people can post, share, like, and comment on information (of any ilk), the wider and farther it will spread, making identification and containment more challenging.
Needless to say, it’s best to be proactive when building systems, deploying tools, and implementing cybersecurity controls. But attacks are also inevitable, some of which will be successful. To maintain trust, it’s imperative to institute fast, reliable identification and remediation mechanisms that reduce mean time to detect and respond.
Recommended practices that will work to slow this impending threat include:
It is unfortunately the case that humans will continue to manipulate machines for their own benefit. And in today’s society, machines are used to influence human thinking. When it comes to elections and election security, we need to be focused just as heavily on how machines are used to influence the voting public. When this “influence” comes in the form of misinformation and disinformation, cybersecurity professionals can be a huge help in stopping the spread.
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